Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Attracting good math teachers: the upside, the downside
A blog on USA Today Tuesday Jan 29 discusses the effort in getting intellectually inclined young adults and mainly college students interesting careers in teaching math. The piece is by Laura Vanderkam, it is titled “Making Math Pay: Good teachers appear when the price is right,” on p 15A of the print edition, and the link is here,
labeled online as a “Columnist opinion.”
One program is Math for America, sponsored by a hedge fund manager. Its link is this. Exxon-Mobil is involved in a National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), link here (and a program with the University of Texas called UTeach). Many of these programs seem designed to attract recent college graduates. As I’ve noted before, attracting retirees from business presents its own issues (of temperament) but some companies like IBM have been developing such programs.
Back in the 1950s, after Russia launched Sputnik, I recall the efforts to get high school students to “take all the Math and science you can.” The show “Watch Mr. Wizard” also preached this mantra. Science fairs grew quickly: I seem to remember doing a project in 10th Grade Biology that was a woodcut model of the human digestive tract, and I recall going to the Georgetown University Library for research, for some reason. The notion of student deferments from the (male only) military draft grew, and these would become a moral controversy in the middle and late 60s as the Vietnam war escalated. Since then, the rest is history. Washington-Lee high school in 1960 had a car designing contest, and I remember the “long low look”.
Math education bifurcates into two somewhat separated areas. One is getting younger and often disadvantaged kids out of the real world and into abstract thinking. In the lower grades it starts with drill. Remember learning the multiplication tables? I can recall that in Second Grade, graduating from the 7’s table to the 8’s was a big deal. (The 7’s were harder. It seems odd that the number 49 would be a perfect square. And, sorry, Jim Carrey's "The Number 23" is in no one's multiplication table because it is a prime.)
By middle school, drill has migrated into self-driven thought. In Algebra I, students learn to represent real things with symbols that seem like counts of things. Students gradually learn to appreciate that translation into abstract symbols can give an advantage, as in sports. If Ben and Grant both have to run the length of a football field, and Ben got a 20 yard head start and is running at 3 miles an hour, how quickly does Grant have to run to catch up with him and tackle him before Ben reaches the end zone? When will it happen. (Yes, I know, I’m referring to a controversial movie short that is all the rage on the Net.) How about a physics problem: How high does teenage quarterback Clark Kent (Smallville -- you know, his "speed") have to throw the pigskin to catch his own forward pass in the endzone 50 yards away in three seconds? Another good one is in geometry. If a baseball field is a perfect square and the foul lines are 320 feet, how far does a batted baseball have to travel to dead center to be a home run? (That gives the student an idea why baseball stadiums usually aren’t square-shaped, although Shibe Park in Philadelphia in the 1930s was.)
Finally, in the advanced grades, math education reaches its other logical bookend (far removed from the grade school sword drills): encouraging students to learn the value of intellectual independence and how it generates freedom. Once more advanced students reach calculus, they begin to see the value of abstraction as a way to develop principles (especially moral ones) to deal with everything. Math is “absolute truth”; even God (or Allah) can’t change it.
But, then, there must be a huge range in interpersonal skills demanded of math teachers. Lower grades and culturally disadvantaged students need constant patience and intervention. Advanced students like to be left alone and prefer teachers who are more like facilitators. The same person is unlikely to want to do both, as the temperaments required are so different. In many school districts, the most advanced students have high schools for themselves. In northen Virginia, the institution is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, link here.
The falling property values of homes could well undermine the effort to attract more teachers, as the subprime problem is already causing school districts to cut budgets. The problem in the suburban Washington DC area is not as bad is in some other sections of the country, but nevertheless, some expansion programs (like pre-K) are slowing down, and class sizes may get larger, and some students may have to pay more for AP or IB exams or materials. The story in The Washington Post today (Jan. 30, 2008) by Nelson Hernandez and Daniel de Vise is “Housing Downturn Squeezes Schools: Program Delays, Larger Classes Being Considered,” on the front page A1, link here.